Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why Can't You Just Die, Already???

Once you're born, you're bound to die. The only qualifiers are how, when, where, and why. Some people suffer the degradation of a long, slow, terminal illness. Others perish in accidents, drownings, succumb to an overdose, or find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That does not mean, however, that there aren't laughs to be found when staring death in the eye -- or opportunities for more drama during end-of-life decisions. Stretching out a character's demise for theatrical purposes can sometimes lead to key moments being enshrined in cinematic history. Consider the following clip:

Bitterness about issues of life and health often surfaces in one's declining years, yet sometimes what lies ahead could offer the strangest kind of relief -- and release. Two short plays presented as part of the Bay Area One Acts Festival examined the issue from curious viewpoints.

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There are moments, when doing online research, that one comes across a passage of writing that is an unexpected gem. Imagine my delight upon reading this profile of an actor whose work I had just enjoyed:
"Damian Lanahan-Kalish is a traitor to his class. Although the proud owner of thirty purebread pony corpses as well as a prestigiously hyphenated surname, he chooses to associate with drunks, "artists," and other degenerates rather than his fellows at the country club. Among the perverts he's been known to collaborate with are some of the most infamous smut peddlers and "rock musicians" plaguing our communities today: James "the Real James" Call, the Beebe Brothers, German Cars Vs. American Homes, Mike Garlington, and other truly horrible people. Often found reciting lecherous verse to beatniks accompanied by raucous jungle music, this individual is a disgrace to his Blood, his Name and to the Royal House of Windsor. As founder of the prestigious Mishap Organization, Damian Lanahan-Kalish (also known among unemployed or middle-income vermin as "Skinny D") has had many opportunities to mend his evil ways. Alas, he has thrown away his youth and family fortune fronting the "punk" combo Endorphin as well as producing a string of obscene record albums. Currently he is working on a book of vile poetry."
Had I not caught Mr. Lanahan-Kalish's performances as Dead Josh, Sergeant, and Another Josh in The Life and Death of Joshua Zweig, I might never have stumbled upon one of the best stage bios since March of 1962, when the Playbill for I Can Get It For You Wholesale included the statement "Born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon, Miss Streisand attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn."

As directed by Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, this new play by Lauren Yee starts off with a clear indication that today Joshua Zweig will die. According to his ghost (Dead Joshua Zweig), who tries to warn the living Joshua Zweig (Ian Riley) of his impending demise, death is pretty unavoidable.

But what happens if Joshua isn't sure about when he wants to die? Or whether the scheduling appeals to him?

What effect might his indecision have on his girlfriend Annabelle (Ariane Owens)? Would she be justified in dating Another Josh so that she wouldn't have to get used to someone with a different first name?

While Lee's play (produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre) raises some interesting questions, it also needs to be trimmed by about ten minutes so that, even if Joshua Zweig can't be put out of his misery with a mercy killing, his existential suffering can at least be reduced.

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Existentialism is not what's eating at the hearts of the two men at the center of Sam Leichter's hypermasculine drama, The Philadelphian. Produced by PianoFight and directed by Rob Ready, this play begins with a shocking threat of violence as two very drunk men struggle with a bitter moment of truth. When the lights come up, Devon (Brian Trybon) has knocked over his chair and, seething with rage, is clutching a baseball bat that seems destined to collide with his best friend's head.

George (Raymond Hobbs) and Devon (Brian Trybon)

The next day, it seems that George (Raymond Hobbs) can't remember what he said or did. But Devon can and, with friends like George, who needs enemies?

With Devon's history of post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq (not to mention a sordid tale of having his ass chewed up by a stray dog when he was much younger), there's no telling what could make his temper explode. What the audience soon learns is that, in a moment of drunken candor, George confessed that he had been fucking Devon's fianceƩ.

Filled with boiling testosterone, misplaced rage, domestic abuse, and George's genuine fear for his own life, The Philadelphian offers a brutal portrait of the kind of man you never really want to know. Devon firmly believes that his girlfriend will still marry him (despite the black eye he gave her) and that George will never, ever talk about this situation again, especially if he wants himself -- or Devon's fianceƩ -- to live.

As someone who neither drinks nor sees violence as the solution of choice, The Philadelphian was quite disturbing to watch. But thanks to Rob Ready's solid direction and two powerhouse performances from Raymond Hobbs and Brian Trybon, it proved to be a remarkably gripping, forceful, and provocative one-act play.

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If you like your death scenes to have a touch of high camp, let me recommend Mail Order Bride of Frankenstein, a 12-minute "pseudo-silent" short that will be screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival as part of a program entitled Classic Filipino American Shorts. Filmed entirely on location in the new-Romanesque former church now known as the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mail Order Bride of Frankenstein (the third film in M.O.B.'s Karaoke Trilogy) is meant to serve as "a chilling yet highly melodic parable on why it’s generally unwise to buy love online, some assembly online."

According to the production notes, Mail Order Brides/M.O.B., is a trio of Filipina American artists who are:
"...engaged in an ongoing collaborative investigation of culture, race and gender. Their film/video works have screened at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the Mix Festival and the International Film Festival in Detroit. They are committed to making the world a more delicious and harmonious place.

While, traditionally, 'real' mail order brides are thought of as ideal obedient domestics, it has not escaped this trio’s attention that, acronymically speaking, 'Mail Order Brides' abbreviates down to a more sinister series of initials (M.O.B.) that inform the darker subtext of their connivings and conspirings.They have taken matters into their own well-manicured hands, using their innate graciousness, good fashion sense, and interior decorating/decorum skills to gently pry open the eyes of the closed-minded.

They have pursued this vision through a cornucopia of creative endeavors including photographic psychodramas, parade performances, public service posters, karaoke music videos, museum makeovers, and educational workshops. Their recent successful business venture, Always A Bridesmaid Never A Bride™, has provided the world with the long-needed services of three Professional Bridesmaids™ for weddings, commitment ceremonies, and immigration-inspired marital arrangements."
Although Mel Brooks may have created a comedy legend with Young Frankenstein, it's impossible to resist a spoof of the classic Bride of Frankenstein that:
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Moving deeper into the Southern Gothic genre, we progress from a 12-minute cinematic romp to a two-act play by Nathan Sanders now being performed at New Conservatory Theatre Center under the direction of Dennis Lickteig. While The Sugar Witch sugar coats the story's murderous deeds and tales of occult doings with lots of laughs, there is enough gore and demonism to satisfy the bloodthirsty souls in the audience. Consider the following cast of characters:
  • Ruth-Ann Meeks (Amelia Mulkey) is a young woman about to be baptized who is desperate for one night of sin before the ceremony. The kind of ignorant fool who makes white trailer trash seem like high society, she has determined that Moses Bean should be the one to perform the honors. Unwilling to take no for an answer, she has followed him out to his home by the swamp and is stalking him without a trace of shame.
  • Granddaddy Meeks (Jay Smith) has warned Ruth-Ann to stay away from the Bean family, whose sordid history since the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, has led many in the area to believe that the family is cursed.
A.J. Davenport & Amelia Mulkey (Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Moses Bean (Michael Phillis) is the last living descendant of the Bean family. A nice, considerate young man who repairs automobiles for a living, he is devoted to taking care of his mentally unstable sister. He's the kind of sweet young man who would not hurt a fly. He's also the proud owner of a stuffed flying cat (most likely an overgrown bat that is native to the area).
  • Sisser (A. J. Davenport) has grown so fat that she spends most of her time in a wheelchair. A woman of limited mental capacity, her childlike personality belies uncommon physical strength.
  • Hank (William Giammona) runs the local funeral parlor. A young man who actually managed to escape to the city for a while and go to college, Hank got into trouble when he had an affair with a minor. He frequently drops by the garage to visit Moses and have his car checked out (even when nothing is wrong with the vehicle).
  • Annabelle (Kendra Owens) is the black woman who has taken care of Moses and Sisser following the death of their mother. As the last Sugar Witch alive, she knows the secret of the Bean family's curse. She hopes that Hank and Moses will fall in love and leave the swampland around the Weeki Wachee River to find a better life.
Kendra Owens and Michael Phillis (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Most people, when they travel to the Orlando area, stick pretty close to the popular tourist attractions around Walt Disney World and Cape Canaveral. One year, my father and I ventured south of Orlando to catch a performance of the famous "mermaid show" at Weeki Watchee Springs and visit the Tupperware Museum of Historic Food Containers (which has since become the Osceola Performing Arts Center) in Kissimmee, Florida.

Driving the minor roads outside of Orlando offered a hair-raising look at rural Southern poverty which, as demonstrated in The Sugar Witch, leaves many local residents wallowing in ignorance, illiteracy, superstition, alcoholism, and poor nutrition. While these characters may seem comic, tragic, or simply pathetic to urban audiences, they do indeed exist.

Michael Phillis and William Giammona (Photo by: Lois Tema)

The Sugar Witch provides a solid evening of entertainment anchored by strong performances from Michael Phillis, A. J. Davenport, and Kendra Owens. While there may be several weak moments (most notably during Annabelle's Act II monologue), the cast does a solid job of bringing a tiny pocket of human misery to life. Thankfully, the audience only needs to meet these people on the page and on the stage.

Nathan Sanders has created a highly entertaining ghost story filled with enough overt racism, warped religion, repressed gay lust, and lesbian intrigue to cast a powerful spell on audiences. The Sugar Witch continues at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 4 (you can order tickets here.)

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